Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. I’ve absolutely adored Strange New Worlds this season, and while it hasn’t been perfect, it’s been fun, and I was willing to forgive such indulgences as the dress-up episode and the space-pirate episode because they were enjoyable. Maybe they were cheesy, but the day was carried by how much fun the cast and production staff had with the dopey tropes.
This week, though, the tropes are all tired, the clichés are irritating as hell, and we lose more than one character.
This is the first episode of SNW I’ve actively disliked, and while I freely admit that a big part of it is an issue that I especially have with how death is treated in dramatic fiction, that’s not the only problem.
But let’s start there!
The main story here involves Enterprise answering a distress call to a planet that’s basically a communications dead zone. But they’re already en route to Deep Space Station K-7 (a station we saw in the original series’ “The Trouble with Tribbles” and DS9’s “Trials and Tribble-ations” and which has been mentioned a few times on Discovery) to deliver needed supplies, so they drop off a couple of shuttles with a big-ass landing party and Enterprise buggers off to K-7.
Prior to this, Pike holds a party for two of the cadets whose field study is coming to an end: Uhura and Chia. In addition, Ensign Duke is promoted to lieutenant. Because Pike is fabulous, he holds the party in his quarters and cooked for it. (La’An misses the party itself, as she had a therapy session, and when she shows up for the post-party mission briefing, she keeps going back and forth between talking about the mission and waxing rhapsodic about how awesome the omelette is. I love that Pike is a foodie and is turning his crew into foodies, also. Though the best part is when Pike puts the apron on a very nonplussed Spock and tells him to finish doing the dishes…)
Pike decides to lead the landing party himself, and makes it a last hurrah for the two cadets and the first mission for Duke as a lieutenant.
All together, we have ten people on this landing party: Pike, La’An, Spock, M’Benga, Chapel, Hemmer, Kirk, Duke, Uhura, and Chia. So we’ve got six characters who we know survive at least to the original series seven years hence, two opening-credits regulars, and two guest stars who’ve never been mentioned before, one of whom just got promoted, and the other of whom is about to transfer back to Earth.
Guess who are the first two people killed. C’mon, guess!
There are no life signs on the crashed ship, and it quickly becomes clear that two of the three passengers they rescued—a human girl named Oriana, a never-named Orion, and an unknown alien, whom Oriana has nicknamed “Buckley”—are carrying Gorn eggs. The Orion’s hatched before Enterprise showed up and wiped out the crew, and the ones in Buckley hatch and kill Chia immediately and Duke a few minutes later.
I get that SNW is going old-school, as it were, and returning to a more episodic approach to Trek, as opposed to the serialized natures of Discovery and Picard. And that’s great, but that doesn’t mean they have to also include the worst excesses and the offensive tropes of the good ol’ days, either. Would it have killed them (pun partly intended) to at least establish Chia and Duke in an earlier episode or two so that their deaths might have a certain meaning to it? Or at least not make it so blindingly obvious that the pair of them were dead meat? I mean, even Voyager managed to get this right in its first season by having Brian Markinson guest star as Durst in “Cathexis” before he was redshirted an episode later in “Faces.”
And then there’s the actual surprise death, that of Hemmer, who has Gorn eggs in him and dies by suicide before they can hatch.
Well, okay, it’s a surprise in the grand scheme of things, because Hemmer is an opening-credits regular and even in these post-Game of Thrones times, that’s more likely to give a character plot armor, but it’s not a surprise in the context of the episode itself, since every single line of dialogue Hemmer has (particularly his conversations with Uhura) sound like a guy giving benedictions to people before he dies.
I really hope there’s a good out-of-the-box explanation for why Hemmer was killed here (the actor getting another gig, e.g., or perhaps not being able to handle the extensive makeup, a factor that has done in more than one actor in a science fiction show, to wit, Brent Stait on Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda and Virginia Hey on Farscape), because in-story, it’s a spectacular failure. Hemmer has barely been a factor, not even been in every episode, and was only just starting to get interesting and begin to get some development, and then they kill him off. (It’s also not a great look for the first opening-credits regular to be killed off being the disabled fella…)
Worse, thanks to Hemmer being one of the casualties, what little attention the deaths of Duke and Chia might have gotten is lost because it’s been bigfooted by Hemmer’s death. While watching the episode, I was complaining about how Chia and Duke’s deaths were barely even being acknowledged (Chia’s death wasn’t even mentioned by anybody), and I specifically grumbled aloud that if it was an opening-credits regular that died, that’s all they’d be talking about. The episode itself then proved me right, as the memorial service at the end is ostensibly for all three of them, but the only person anybody talks about is Hemmer. And Hemmer’s death is full of pathos and reaction shots and sadness, while Duke and Chia drop to the ground and nobody hardly bats an eyelash.
The Secret Hideout shows in general have been better about this sort of thing than past iterations of Trek (and to be fair, so was Enterprise). As an example, when Airiam died on Discovery, we saw the crew mourn her. Yes, from the viewer’s perspective, she’s a minor character, but from the characters’ perspective she’s just as important a member of the crew as anyone else, and her death would have meaning.
This is a limitation that is imposed upon this show because so many of the characters’ fates are already known, which wouldn’t be a problem if they weren’t also deciding to do the people-trapped-in-a-closed-environment-while-scary-monster-threatens-them plot that we’ve seen so often before—the four Alien movies, The Thing from Another World (and its 1980s remake), “Ice” on The X-Files, “The Horror of Fang Rock” on Doctor Who, etc., etc., ad infinitum—and you need dead-meat characters in order to make the threat real. But where, for example, The X-Files and Doctor Who could do that easily with guest stars by virtue of there only being two stars of the show, it’s a lot harder to pull off that kind of story on SNW with so many unkillable characters. They even doubled down on it by not having two of the characters whose fates are unknown—Number One and Ortegas—on the landing party.
Which leads me to my next problem with this episode, which is actually a problem with the entire season to date, though it is writ large this week: the marginalization of Number One. Back when SNW was announced in May 2020, I said on this here site that “This needs to be Number One’s show,” since of the Big Three of her, Pike, and Spock, she was the one with the most room to develop. What we’ve gotten this season has been the opposite of that. The awesome character that Majel Barrett played beautifully in “The Cage,” and who was equally a force to be reckoned with in her five appearances on Discovery and Short Treks as played by Rebecca Romijn has been utterly neutered and marginalized this season, relegated to being the damsel in distress or the subject of a comedy B-plot. The one episode that focused on her saw her lying to her crewmates and revealing an important piece of information that could lead to her being drummed out of Starfleet—it isn’t, because Pike is on her side because she’s allegedly the finest first officer in the fleet. Yet there is no evidence of that, as she’s hardly even been around this season. In particular, she’s a non-factor in this episode, giving Duke his new braids at the top of the episode, sent off with Enterprise to K-7, and not even seen in the funeral scene at the end.
Instead, we’ve been getting lots of Pike angsting about his future and Spock dealing with his relationship with T’Pring and reconciling his nature, which is all mostly setting up for stories we’ve already seen. Having said that, one of the things I like about this episode in particular is that Spock—in order to deal with the Gorn—breaks down the barriers on his emotional control in order to be aggressive with the Gorn. The problem is afterward he’s having a hard time putting those barriers back up. This is a nice reminder that Vulcans developed logic and emotional control, not because they’re emotionless automatons, but because Vulcan emotions are massively turbulent and violent and nasty, which is a bad combination with Vulcan super-strength… (See also the original series’ “This Side of Paradise” and “All Our Yesterdays,” TNG’s “Sarek,” Voyager’s “Meld” and “Random Thoughts,” Enterprise’s “Fusion,” etc.)
So we’ve got a storyline that’s been done many times before (besides the movies and TV shows listed above, there’s a heavy influence from the Predator movies), and it’s not a storyline that this show in particular is structured to tell in a satisfying manner thanks to plot armor. We’ve got the worst kind of redshirting, a tradition that this franchise popularized and which it should be running away from. We’ve got the death of a main character that would have a lot more going for it if more had been done with the character before.
And we’ve still got the issue of this being the Gorn, for reasons already outlined in my review of “Memento Mori” (and by lots of other people all over the place). On top of that, we actually see Gorn this week. They hatch in people and pop out as little Gorn-lets (just like the Xenomorphs in the Alien franchise), then attack each other for dominance until there’s one adult left. The Gorn we see here look absolutely nothing like the guy in the rubber suit in the original series’ “Arena,” and there’s a part of me that wants this to be the case because these aren’t actually the Gorn, they’re somebody else, but I suspect that’s a forlorn hope and the redesign is—like the redesigns on Tellarites and Andorians and Klingons over the decades—in service of improved technology.
In the end, we not only lose Hemmer, we also lose La’An, who takes a leave of absence in order to try to reunite Oriana with her family, and Uhura was established at the top of the episode as being on her way out the door as well, since her cadet rotation is coming to an end. This raises the question of whether or not Christina Chong and/or Celia Rose Gooding are even coming back next season. This may be addressed in next week’s season finale, or we may need to wait until season two (which is filming in Toronto even as I type this) debuts.
Let’s hope the finale gets the show’s mojo back…
Keith R.A. DeCandido is the author of a ton of Star Trek fiction, from the 1999 comic book Perchance to Dream to the 2005 novel Articles of the Federation to the 2014 reference book The Klingon Art of War to the 2022 role-playing game adventure Incident at Kraav III.